Washington Unscrupulous retailers take advantage of lax federal rules to bilk older Americans out of billions of dollars a year by selling them worthless dietary and nutritional supplements, health experts told the Senate Special Committee on Aging on Monday.
U.S. consumers spend an estimated $17 billion each year on dietary supplements, and seniors account for about 60 percent of those sales in retail stores, by direct mail and over the Internet, according to recent surveys.
Some supplements, such as the herbs St. John's wort and Echinacea, can be effective in treating minor medical ailments, studies have shown, and only a few have been found to have harmful effects among healthy adults. But experts advise people to consult their doctors before taking any such product.
Supplements can pose greater health risks to seniors, who are more likely to take prescription drugs and to have medical problems, both of which can be adversely affected by the products, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress.
Advertisements for a variety of pills, tonics, balms, potions and gadgets claim the products can help halt memory loss and weight gain, ease the effects of menopause, boost energy and curb arthritis pain. Those claims are mostly false and simply exploit the hopes and fears of older Americans, said Dr. Joyce C. Lashof, professor emerita at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley.
"When you promise older people, either explicitly or implicitly, that by taking your product they will slow down the aging process, live longer, have more energy, have fewer wrinkles, remember more and perform better sexually, you have touched a raw nerve," Lashof testified.
Some supplements, such as kava, an herb believed to reduce stress, could worsen symptoms of Parkinson's disease, said Jane Heinrich, director of health care and public health issues for the GAO.
Even Echinacea, which is commonly used to fight colds and flu, and St. John's wort, an herb with mild sedative effects, pose a risk of bleeding and cardiovascular instability during surgery, Heinrich said.
David Seckman, executive director of the National Nutritional Foods Assn., which represents dietary supplement manufacturers, said he supports any effort to get the "bad apples" out of the industry.
Aging Committee Chairman Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said he himself takes several supplements, and uses two back braces with strong magnets that supposedly help with back pain.
"The magnets don't help?" Breaux asked, prompting laughter.
Breaux later said that even though only a small percentage of manufacturers are at fault, it may be time for Congress to tighten regulation of advertising and marketing by the supplement industry.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, urged caution: "We should remain wary of calls for regulations that may restrict an individual's freedom to make his or her own health decisions."
The Federal Trade Commission regulates advertising for dietary supplements, and the Food and Drug Administration regulates their safety, manufacture and labeling.
Both agencies are severely handicapped in policing the fast-growing industry by lack of adequate legal authority, staff and money.
The Dietary Supplement Heath and Education Act of 1994 does not require manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of their products to the FDA before marketing them.